In devastating ‘Son of Saul,’ Jewish director goes where few others dare
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In devastating ‘Son of Saul,’ Jewish director goes where few others dare

Busting open the genre of Holocaust film, László Nemes’s first feature is a shattering immersive experience through the eyes of a Sonderkommando

Jewish Hungarian-born director László Nemes on the set of 'Son of Saul.' (courtesy)
Jewish Hungarian-born director László Nemes on the set of 'Son of Saul.' (courtesy)

Dark and R-rated, “Son of Saul” doesn’t follow the “code” of the Holocaust film genre. Filmed over 28 days in the outskirts of Budapest, the feature explores the devastating existence of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau as an immersive experience.

Set in October 1944, Jewish Hungarian director László Nemes’s first feature depicts these primarily Jewish prisoners who were sentenced with the sadistic job of “processing” new arrivals. They were charged with leading innocent victims into the gas chambers, promptly sorting the valuables and removing all other physical evidence of their demise before reducing the corpses to ash in the crematoria.

The Sonderkommando’s fate was typically limited to a few months before the Nazis systematically executed them to eliminate witnesses of their atrocities. A new rotation of slaves was quickly installed in their place.

In “Saul fia,” its Hungarian title, Magyar actor, poet and former punk rocker Géza Röhrig of Riverdale, New York, portrays the tormented protagonist Saul Ausländer. The 107-minute film follows Saul in a 48-hour period in which he discovers a corpse he identifies as his own son.

In the madness of the death factory, Saul seeks a proper burial and a rabbi to say kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. In the camp’s cacaphony of German, Hungarian and Yiddish, the camera follows Saul and his comrades. Little else comes into clear focus, and nothing is explained, suggesting the actual chaos of the extermination experience. Meanwhile, the Sonderkommando, “the bearers of secrets” who were fed, housed and even clothed distinctly from other prisoners, attempt what becomes a short-lived revolt.

Former Sonderkommando members had penned the material now known as ‘Voices from Beneath the Ashes,’ then buried and hid their testimonies before the Nazi death camp’s historical 1944 rebellion

The film’s now-celebrated director Nemes is a native Hungarian who emigrated to Paris with his mother when he was aged 12, around the fall of Communism in 1989. An alumnus of the Sorbonne and the Institute of Political Studies, at 26, Nemes returned to his ancestral land to study filmmaking.

Nemes assisted famed director Béla Tarr on the films, “Visions of Europe” and “The Man from London,” and during a break in filming the latter, Nemes discovered a French translation of what is commonly referred to as the “The Scrolls of Auschwitz.” Former Sonderkommando members had penned the material now known as “Des Voix sous la cendre/Voices from Beneath the Ashes,” then buried and hid their testimonies before the Nazi death camp’s historical 1944 rebellion. In writing his screenplay, Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer examined multiple eyewitness accounts and received support of several historians.

Director Laszlo Nemes, right, is presented the Grand Prix award by actor Mads Mikkelsen for the film Son of Saul during the awards ceremony at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Director Laszlo Nemes, right, is presented the Grand Prix award by actor Mads Mikkelsen for the film ‘Son of Saul’ during the awards ceremony at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

Five years in the making, “Son of Saul” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the acclaimed Gran Prix du Jury. The accolades shown no sign of stopping. The pic has played the Toronto, AFI, Telluride and New York Film Festivals, claiming recognition as “Best Foreign Language Film” from more than 10 film critics associations and the National Board of Review Awards.

It is both a nominee for the January 10 Golden Globe awards for best foreign film and Hungary’s submission for the same category for the Academy Award. Whether it receives an official Oscar nomination remains to be seen — final nominations are announced on January 14.

Under a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classic, “Son of Saul” opens December 18 in New York and LA, and will be screened in Israel this January and February.

To learn more about Nemes’ landmark freshman showing, The Times of Israel caught up with the 38-year-old director during a whirlwind press tour. Nemes spoke while heading to meet one of the last survivors of the Sonderkommando (now 93 and unavailable for interviews) residing in Los Angeles.

How does it feel to receive so much acclaim for your first feature film?

‘It’s either destruction, deportation or hiding. No one really came back’

After a while, when you’re in the process, it just becomes completely natural, but at the same time, very exhausting. The surprise is still there. I still look at this in a state of wonder, but there is still work to be done. You accomplish this, and this is something that is a profession in itself, and I wasn’t prepared for that. A first-time director is not prepared for this kind of adventure. It’s been very intense and it’s important for the film. Even first-time directors can create projects that attract attention.

You’ve spoken publicly about members of your family murdered at Auschwitz. How close are you to that trauma?

My great-grandparents on my mother’s side were killed and my grandmother had to flee the ghetto. She escaped in eastern Hungary, now Ukraine. There was a vibrant Jewish community before the war there. It was destroyed. And on my father’s side, they had to hide. It’s either destruction, deportation or hiding. No one really came back.

Magyar rabbi, poet and former punk rocker Géza Röhrig of Brooklyn portrays the tormented protagonist Saul Ausländer. (courtesy)
Poet and former punk rocker Géza Röhrig of Riverdale, NY portrays the tormented protagonist Saul Ausländer. (courtesy)

How do you find balance while immersing yourself in this material?

That’s part of my life. You learn how to live with it. I always had this sense of being unable to understand it and being angry. That’s always been a defining feeling. You learn how to live with that. It’s so remote and at the same time, very close. I’m not alone with that. Traumas remain in the family and in the population, too.

What can film achieve with this subject matter that other media cannot?

‘Traumas remain in the family and in the population, too’

It can work on a perception level and really communicate with the senses and not necessarily with the intellectual part of the psyche. It can offer much more than something for the intellect and that, I think, is the advantage of cinema.

What, specifically, inspired you to make this film?

“The Scroll of Auschwitz,” the writings of the Sonderkommando. These texts are not really well known but they transport the reader in the there and now. We see from the inside what these people had to go through. It’s an incredible type of document and they are not well known.

They didn’t make it to the canons of Holocaust literature… for the reason they are not about survival and not about the exception but the rule. But these are, I think, necessary and important. I read the scroll ten years ago… trying to find the angle and [address the question], “How do you find a cinematic way to be in the middle of this experience?”

Scene from Hungarian director László Nemes’s first feature film, 'Son of Saul.' (courtesy)
Scene from Hungarian director László Nemes’s first feature film, ‘Son of Saul.’ (courtesy)

What do you think is the strength of the film?

I’m really reluctant to answer this question but it is an immersive experience and it offers an angle that hasn’t been seen — not offering a post-war, frozen, static point of view with the distance and safety of the viewer. I wanted the viewer to be within the experience. That is something that makes it unique.

What is your response to the film’s Oscar potential?

It’s just an entry. We might end up having that. The future will tell.

And how about the Golden Globes?

It’s a very important step for a film and it can make it. It can just contribute to making it known and seen and these are the most important things for film, especially with an important subject.

‘You have to go beyond the resistance of people who say, “Why do we need another Holocaust film?”’

You have to go beyond the resistance of people who say, “Why do we need another Holocaust film?” But you know there are so many films that contribute to building a codified genre and we really try to break out of this code. This was very important because we thought that the “codes” were problematic and didn’t really reflect the situation of the individual within the Holocaust but an external position of a view of the post-war period.

Have you experienced any negative response to the film?

All the people who were reluctant to see it and eventually saw it were thankful to us because it wasn’t the film they expected. Other than that, we’ve had overwhelming positive response to the film.

Who was reluctant to see the film?

There is a category of journalists who posed resistance but it was more on an idealogical level in different countries in Europe and in the US. But they never really talk about the film. They talk about the subject, and say, “There is another film about the suffering of the Jewish people.”

How do you identify Jewishly?

I’m not a religious person but I have a very deep connection to Judaism and I see how much destruction the European Jews have suffered. And I made this film to talk about this lost civilization and this lost world, and also because I’m angry that this happened, and Europe never really understood that.

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